For decades, Kim Phuc has been haunted by a photograph.
The black and white image taken in 1972 by Associated Press photographer Nick Ut shows Phuc, then 9 years old, burned by napalm and running naked through the streets moments after her village in South Vietnam was bombed.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning picture often has been credited with helping to end the Vietnam War — the Paris peace accords were signed six months after its publication — but it also shaped Phuc’s life long after the violence in Southeast Asia was over.
“That photograph changed my life forever,” Phuc told the congregation at Liberty Baptist Church in Newport Beach on Sunday.
Though the image of fear and anguish has defined her for years, Phuc, now 52, wants to bring a different message to the world — one of forgiveness and peace.
Growing up in South Vietnam, Phuc was a “happy child” and “knew nothing of war,” she said. The worst injury she had endured was scraping her knees while falling off a bicycle.
Everything changed on June 8, 1972, when her village, Trang Bang, was attacked by South Vietnamese forces who reportedly mistook some villagers for North Vietnamese soldiers. Phuc’s clothes were burned off, and her skin was on fire. She ran away, screaming “too hot.”
The photographer who documented her suffering helped her reach a hospital. “Everybody was expecting to bring my body back to the village for burial,” she said. Phuc had endured so many burns that she was transferred to the morgue.
She survived, though she needed 17 operations over the next 12 years.
Drawing back a flowing purple sleeve, Phuc revealed to the crowd of churchgoers Sunday the white scars that still twist around her left arm. “I should have died,” she said.
“My skin should have burned off my body. But as you can see, my hands and face are still beautiful, right?” she said, smiling as the audience laughed.
Her body healed, but the photograph’s impact was far from over. Phuc was accepted to medical school in Saigon, but the communist government cut her studies short so it could turn her into a propaganda symbol, she said.
“I became a victim all over again,” Phuc said. “My life was like a bird in a cage, and I became so bitter and angry.”
The government let her continue her studies in Cuba, another communist country where it was “easier to control” her, she said. She later sought asylum in Canada, where she lives today with her husband and two children.
“I had a lot of anger, but I knew I could not live like that,” she said. “I had to change my heart or die from hatred.”
So Phuc undertook what she called the “hardest work of my life” — forgiveness.
“My life in a new country was a challenge,” she said, “but by far my biggest challenge was learning to forgive those who had caused me so much suffering.”
Phuc frequently cited her Christian faith — which she embraced at 19 — as the reason she was able to move beyond her pain. And once she did, “I was free,” she said, “and that was heaven on Earth.”
“Forgiveness is more powerful than any weapon of war,” she added.
Today, Phuc is a UNESCO goodwill ambassador and runs Kim Foundation International, which helps child victims of war.
Phuc said she looks at the 43-year-old photograph in a new way and urged the audience to do the same.
“When you see this little girl, you can see her crying out,” she said. “Try not to see her as crying out in pain or fear, but see her as crying out for peace.”